There is a crude 2-foot-deep hole is carved into the earth at the end of a jagged downhill path of tangled brush just off the Long Island Expressway service road in Medford. The hum of rush-hour traffic can just about be heard through the thick of trees. It’s been five months since a young woman’s body was dug up here. Wild grass and mushrooms have already begun to break the surface, and this once-shaved patch of land doesn’t stick out in quite the same shocking way it had when cadaver dogs and police cars lined its perimeter in early spring. But the hot-pink paint markings, sprayed on trees by police officers, now faded, are still here. So is a disposable dental instrument left behind by medical examiners. And a silver medal with numbers etched into it nailed to a tree designating the area a crime scene.
Her name was Jennifer Papain, but she is better known as “a 26-year-old prostitute” who, back in March, met the kind of fate prostitutes often meet. Not that you would have heard about it.
Papain’s case barely made headlines, at least not in the same way the case of 29-year-old school teacher Leah Walsh did when she was strangled to death and left by her husband, in much the same way Papain was, in a wooded area off the side of the Long Island Expressway service road in North Hills. A 4-foot wooden cross, laminated photo and flowers mark the spot where Walsh’s body was found by an employee of the North Hills Country Club two years ago. Walsh’s story was the subject of almost daily news updates. Her face was on the cover of newspapers; her funeral was covered on the evening news.
But few people knew when Papain, of North Patchogue, suddenly disappeared. Papain had been a missing person for nearly three months before 22-year-old Chad Johnson—a man who hired her through Craigslist for a sex act, then allegedly strangled her to death in his car when she wouldn’t refund his $80—led police to her shallow grave, just one bend in the road out of eyesight from Johnson’s home.
“I choked her until she died after we argued about her giving me back the money I paid her for the [sexual encounter],” Johnson told Suffolk County police homicide detectives, according to court documents. He subsequently pleaded not guilty and is now awaiting trial from behind the bars of Suffolk County jail.
Jessica Taylor, a prostitute originally from upstate New York, found nude, headless and handless on a deserted access road in the Manorville area of the Pine Barrens in 2003, is probably even less familiar. She was 20 years old, and her murder remains unsolved. And when 30-year-old Gail Belfield, a Wyandanch woman with a long record of prostitution arrests, was found in 1995 naked from the waist up with a bullet to her head, her story hardly made it past the local crime blotter.
Now, just 10 miles down the Expressway from where Papain was found in May, another young woman, visiting Long Island from Maine, has gone missing. Megan Waterman, 22, was caught on surveillance video, walking away from a Hauppauge hotel one last time before she was never heard from again in the early morning hours of June 6. Waterman has been missing for five months now, but you probably haven’t heard of her, either. See, Megan also advertised as an escort on Craigslist, and in the 138 days she has been missing, her case has rarely made the news. In fact, like most missing persons cases involving prostitutes, it has hardly gotten any attention at all.
“I think the media attention dying down is just a normal activity that occurs when somebody first goes missing,” says Cynthia Caron, president and founder of LostNMissing, a national nonprofit organization that assists families and law enforcement in missing persons cases. “The media is usually pretty involved the first week or so, but unless there are some major changes to a case then they really don’t continue to report it.”
But even given the natural decline of public interest, many who hear about cases like those of Waterman and Papain dismissively shake their heads, time and time again, believing that these women, by the nature of their lifestyles, somehow “asked for it” or “had it coming.”
Megan Waterman left from Portland on a six-hour bus trip to Long Island on June 5, the week after Memorial Day Weekend, but the only signs of her now are the “missing” posters in storefront windows in the Hauppauge Shopping Center just three miles away from the Holiday Inn Express, where she was last seen leaving alone at 1:30 a.m.
Summer has come and gone. Now red and orange leaves are blowing in the wind and there are only a handful of posters left, informing passersby that Waterman is 5-feet-5-inches tall, weighs about 145 pounds, has a birthmark inside her left forearm and a mole on the right side of her face; that she has naturally brown hair, but it’s bleached blonde; a tattoo on her upper left arm that says “Liette,” a Capricorn horoscope sign on her lower left arm and a tribal design with a heart in the center of her lower back.
The posters were put there by Waterman’s family, now caring for Waterman’s 3-year-old daughter, Liliana, and assuring her they are doing everything possible to bring her mommy home.
“In the beginning she thought Megan was lost,” says Lorraine Ela, Waterman’s mother. “But as the time goes by she’s finally realizing that Megan is missing and nobody can find her.”
Waterman was last seen by her boyfriend, Akeem Cruz, between 8 and 9 p.m. on June 5, according to police reports, and he spoke with her on the phone for the last time at around 1:30 a.m. on June 6. Cruz told police she was wearing silver hoop earrings, a silver garnet ring and a silver necklace.
This wasn’t Waterman’s first trip to Long Island with Cruz, a Brooklyn transplant she met at a Portland nightclub 11 months before she went missing. Cruz, who officially still resides in Brooklyn, but spends months at a time in Maine, told investigators he makes the six-hour trip to attend nightclubs.
But, according to police reports, he was doing a lot more than that. Cruz has been in and out of jail for unrelated crimes before and after Waterman’s disappearance.
Cruz was arrested in Portland and charged with criminal menacing with a dangerous weapon after he allegedly threatened a woman with a knife during an altercation, slashed her tires and told her, “You better stop talking about me or I’ll kill you,” according to police.
He was arrested again shortly after when his Portland motel room was raided by Maine Drug Enforcement Agency agents investigating a complaint about drug trafficking from the location. Police say Cruz was found in possession of 13 grams of crack cocaine—with a reported street value of $1,300.
Cruz, the last person known to have spoken with Waterman, was—and still is—considered a witness by law enforcement, not a suspect, in Waterman’s disappearance.
“We haven’t identified a suspect,” says Scarborough police Detective Don Blatchford, lead investigator on the case. “In a situation where we have a missing person, until that person is found—alive or deceased—you really can’t develop a suspect yet. Ultimately finding her is the priority.”
Waterman and Cruz had been taking bimonthly trips to Long Island for a couple of weeks at a time on a regular basis. Cruz, familiar with the area, allegedly brought Waterman to the hotel to work as an escort.
“She had traveled back and forth to New York for a year with this guy,” says her mother, Ela, who adds Waterman would religiously call three times a day to check on her daughter whenever she was away. “Her daughter is her life. She’d always come home, but on the last trip she never made it back.”
Waterman’s last call to her daughter came the evening of June 5 at approximately 9:50 p.m. The question police are still trying to figure out is: Where did she go just a few hours later? Did she leave the hotel and then go missing? Did she meet up with Cruz in the parking lot away from video cameras? Did she meet a client from Craigslist? Or did she simply run into the wrong people while walking by herself in what locals refer to as “a seedy area”?
“We still don’t know what happened,” says Blatchford. “The assumption is that the ad probably is involved at this point, but the fact of the matter is anything could have happened to her.”
Waterman, a single-mom who lived with her daughter and grandmother in Scarborough, had been working two jobs to make ends meet prior to meeting Cruz one night while out with friends.
“She worked at different sandwich shops before she met her boyfriend—well, her boyfriend-slash-pimp,” says Ela. “He told her how she could make easy, quick money and he got her hooked on Craigslist. Her attitude, her personality—all of it changed when she met him.”
Elizabeth Meserve, Waterman’s aunt, says that while Waterman had troubles in her past, her behavior over the past 11 months was completely out of character for her.
Waterman was arrested twice in 2009 on charges of theft and the unauthorized taking and sale and use of drug paraphernalia.
“She was always kind of a rough kid, but she had never ever done anything like this, never,” says Meserve. “I don’t know how he convinced her.”
The Press was unable to reach Cruz for comment.
A WEB OF OPPORTUNITY
A Queens trafficker was sentenced in January to 25 years in prison after selling a 19-year-old woman to another man on Craigslist. In June, 44-year-old Jin Hua Chi and her driver, 53-year-old Sangyel Kuen of Flushing, were charged with sex trafficking, promoting prostitution and conspiracy on Craigslist after allegedly forcing women into prostitution.
Craigslist made $45 million from sex ads last year, about a third of its total profits, according to Advanced Interactive Media Group, LLC. In a collective complaint filed by 43 state attorneys general against Craigslist for blatantly promoting prostitution, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal compared the Internet sex trade to “an online red light district” that’s “as obvious and plain to you as Times Square was in the ’70s or ’80s.”
“Unsurprisingly, but completely contrary to some of the sensationalistic journalism we’ve seen these past few weeks, the record is clear that use of Craigslist classifieds is associated with far lower rates of violent crime than print classifieds,” Craigslist fired back, citing security features like “flagging” inappropriate posts, posted safety tips, and an electronic trail that could help catch violent criminals—all things printed classified ads lack—as evidence.
Craigslist, in response, agreed to start making some changes to the site, like requiring phone numbers for ad posters and giving proceeds from its erotic section to charities fighting sex trafficking.
Then the site came under even more scrutiny after the jailhouse suicide in August of 24-year-old Philip Markoff aka “The Craigslist Killer,” a former medical student who was awaiting trial in the killing of Julissa Brisman, a masseuse he met through Craigslist.
The erotic services section of Craigslist was censored with a black bar in September, then removed altogether from the U.S. version of the website.
Ela says she found out from her son’s ex-girlfriend that her daughter was posting ads here.
“I had to check it out for myself because I didn’t believe it,” she says. “When I saw it, I had talked to my mom about it and we had tried talking to Megan.”
But despite her family’s pleas to stop, Waterman kept posting to the site. Meserve recently found out, from an article on the Internet, her niece had been arrested for prostitution during her last trip to Long Island.
Waterman had arranged to meet undercover detectives through a Craigslist ad on the evening of Oct. 17, 2009, at the Extended Stay Hotel in Bethpage, according to Nassau County police. After agreeing to perform a sexual act in exchange for money at 9:10 p.m., she was charged with prostitution.
“Our family didn’t know,” says Meserve. “I found this now, after she disappeared.”
The general consensus among family is that Waterman is being held against her will somewhere and being drugged and sold for sex as part of a trafficking ring. And if this is the case, it could be any number of people who could have caused her disappearance.
“I’m hearing more and more that people hire men to get the girls, recruit them, and train them,” says Meserve. “I just can’t even imagine. I’ve learned a lot about trafficking and there are aspects of trafficking in Meggie’s case for sure.”
Caron, of LostNMissing, agrees.
“I think the intentions were there at the onset because, to me, to have men come from New York all the way to Portland, Maine just to attend a nightclub on a continual basis doesn’t make sense—New York has many, many nightclubs and probably better ones,” says Caron. “There are very, very large underground trafficking circles in which young women are drugged and housed somewhere, and men come and pay for services.”
Hotels, whether inside or out, often provide the locations for such meetings. Papain met Johnson in the parking lot of the Bay Shore Inn, next to an empty, decrepit in-ground pool along a side entrance on an abandoned part of the property. Rachel Stack, 25, of New Jersey was arrested in 2008 at the Sheraton Hotel in Hauppauge when police learned she had set up shop there, using Craigslist to advertise her services.
NO TELL HOTELS
The Holiday Inn Express sits just off the Expressway, a towering beige building on well-manicured property surrounded by two one-way streets, one leading to a patch of undeveloped land currently for sale, filled with gravel piles, broken concrete, twisted steel, and littered with empty 40-ounce beer bottles, old truck tires and gravel-lined paths behind the hotel; the other ending in an industrial area full of warehouses, construction and sanitation sites and the local park-and-ride in front.
“We found out that cars are frequently broken into in the hotel parking lot,” says one TripAdvisor review added by a guest who had her car broken into and windshield smashed. “The front desk staff even has auto glass repair phone numbers written down.”
Signs in every aisle of the parking lot read, “Not Responsible for Theft or Damage to Vehicles or Contents,” postings that are not a regular aspect of the popular hotel chain, but are familiar to the areas surrounding this particular location, which according to guests who have stayed there, attracts some undesirables and loiterers due to its hidden location and parking lots.
The only place within a short walking distance from the hotel is a gas station/convenience store. One would have to walk either through a secluded parking lot, more so during the early hours of Sunday morning, down an equally lonely expressway service road, or the desolate street lined with empty warehouses on both sides, to get to the store—or anywhere else.
Another guest references a “group of misfits” that checked into multiple rooms on her floor. She calls the area around the hotel “sketchy” and says she witnessed drug deals in the parking lot and within the hotel.
“As I walked down the hall, I could hear conversations coming through the room doors regarding illegal drugs,” she says. Another guest simply says, “Not a neighborhood for families or a woman alone.”
And Waterman was alone when she left the hotel, according to surveillance footage reviewed by detectives. Cruz was not believed to be in the hotel when Megan disappeared, and Megan had checked in alone, according to police.
Blatchford says police have checked the areas surrounding the hotel, and found no trace of Waterman. And investigators are still trying to piece together exactly what Waterman did before she disappeared.
“I think at this point, she’s been gone for four months plus,” says Blatchford. “There is a heightened level of concern when someone has been gone for that long.”
Blatchford says he cannot reveal specific details of what was or wasn’t caught on tape to avoid compromising the investigation, but urges the public to come forward with any information they might have.
“If there’s anyone who has any information or any knowledge about anything that happened in the area that stands out for any reason—suspicious for any reason—they should contact local authorities,” he says. “It would be extremely helpful, but unfortunately she was last seen at a time when there may not have been a lot of people around.”
Which leads back to the same question: Why was a 22-year-old woman leaving a hotel alone at 1:30 a.m. in a desolate, industrial area? It’s a question police are still trying to answer, while others simply repeat it with scorn.
While Waterman’s family says they had a positive response when they handed out hundreds of fliers on their last trip to Long Island, the comments, especially on the Internet, haven’t all been supportive.
Waterman’s case was recently reported on CNN’s Jane Velez-Mitchell Show, but the publicity didn’t bring in new leads, just a lot of harsh words.
“Comments like, ‘If her mother and father were any type of parents they would have never let her get into this,’” says Ela. “And, ‘She deserves what she gets’…stuff like that. I try not to pay attention to it—because I’ve responded and Elizabeth also has—but you’re not going to change how people feel no matter how much you tell them.”
Meserve says she’s come across a lot of these “hate-filled” remarks.
“‘She was asking for it’ or ‘she was hooking’ or ‘why do you say boyfriend, he was her pimp, come on,’” she says. “There are some things you just don’t say.”
Under one Internet article on the disappearance of Jennifer Papain, which uses an old mug shot as her missing person photo, someone writes, “Sorry to say when you choose that lifestyle this is often the end result” and calls her “a junkie.”
Although the public can at times be less than sympathetic when something happens to a woman in the sex industry, Blatchford says detectives treat all missing persons the same, and that Waterman’s case is active and worked daily by investigators.
“It doesn’t change the way we investigate the case,” he says. “Now, the perception of the public may change because of what she did, but I can assure you the investigators involved in the case look at this as any other missing person. Because regardless of whatever profession the person was in, there is still a family. There is still a mother who is missing a daughter, and a daughter who is missing her mother.”
Back in Hauppauge, it’s business as usual at the Holiday Inn Express. Cars with license plates from Idaho, Florida and a handful of other states are in the parking lot, driven by families visiting or maybe employees on business. They probably have never heard of Megan Waterman, but just a few miles away, missing posters with pictures of the 22-year-old smiling and playing with her daughter still hang in storefront windows. From their home in Maine, her family plans a fundraiser to raise reward money in hopes it will prompt someone to come forward.
In Riverhead, Chad Johnson awaits trial for the murder of Jennifer Papain. William Ferris, Johnson’s attorney, says his client has “a strong defense.”
And just off this quiet service road in Medford, there is still a 2-foot hole in the ground. There are still faded pink markings and a silver medal with numbers etched into it nailed to a tree. And although months have passed, life has gone on, and nature is slowly filling in the ground, this is still, and will always be, the spot where one woman’s story came to an end. And just as it seems like no one else in the world seems to take notice, a stranger comes jogging down the empty road. The man turns almost robotically at the trees with the faded pink markings, as though it’s part of his everyday routine. He continues to the end of the jagged downhill path of tangled brush, pulls his headphones off and quietly kneels down in prayer.
If you have any information on the whereabouts of Megan Waterman, please contact the Scarborough Police Department at 207-883-6361 or their anonymous tip line at 207-730-4200, ext 3093; http://www.tipsubmit.com; or the Suffolk County Police Department at 631-854-8400.